O how I love your law! All day long it is my conversation.
From my enemies, your commandments make me wise: for they are ever with me.
From my teachers, I have understanding; for Thy testimonies are my meditation.
From my elders, I understand, because I have keep Thy precepts.
I have refrained my feet from every evil way, in order that I might observe Thy word.
I have not turned aside from Thine ordinances; for Thou hast instructed me.
How sweet are Thy words unto my palate! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
From Thy precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.
The opening verse of this section describes the way my grandfather is. He never stops talking about God all day long. It’s what he loves about life. I’ve inherited his love for talking about God and the beautiful principles by which He orders the universe (a.k.a. His Torah). I can’t stop talking about it. I’ve been trying to translate this into the tools of the 21st century, such as twitter, which until several months ago I was very cynical about. I try to follow John Piper’s advice (which he should have followed himself) on making every tweet count. Whenever I come across an epiphany whether it’s in a psalm or a Thomas Merton book, I want the whole world to know about it.
But having the desire and call to talk incessantly about God’s law comes with a very perilous challenge. It is so easy for the pure joy of discovering and sharing truths about God to turn into a lust for fame and worldly acclaim. My pride is the most formidable enemy I have. It seems like I can never escape it. I get way too much pleasure out of writing a blog entry that lots of people decide to read. There’s a graph above the window where I am typing this that shows how many hits I am getting each hour. Apparently the Mennonite Weekly Review decided to reprint one of my blogs which resulted in a spike of viewership this evening despite the fact I haven’t written anything since Thursday.
There’s a very cool duality in Hebrew in this section of Psalm 119 that captures the strange battle between sinful pride and authentic joy in talking about God’s law. The way in Hebrew to say that you’re better or more of something than another person is to write a sentence that literally translated would be “From Bob, I am smart,” but which actually means “I am smarter than Bob.” The section for this week of Psalm 119 is the mem section, which means that every sentence begins with מ which happens to be the prefix used to express the preposition “from.”
In any case, the beginning of verse 99 is מכל-מלמדי השכלתי which can mean either “I have more knowledge than all my teachers” or “From all my teachers I have knowledge.” The same construction is used for my “enemies” in verse 98 (מאיבי תחכמני מצותך) and my “elders” in verse 100 (מזקנים אתבונן). The distinction between these two translations captures the two possible attitudes we can have about learning God’s law. We are either concerned with outdoing our teachers, elders, and enemies in our knowledge of the truth or we are gratefully deferential toward them in giving them full credit for whatever knowledge God has given us through them. The same knowledge can give us either sinful pride or pious gratitude depending on how we translate the proverbial mem (מ) in our perception of what is happening.
Over the past several weeks, I have been learning a lot from my “enemies” (the first lesson being that they aren’t enemies at all). Having grown up Southern Baptist, a strand of Christianity built squarely upon the affirmation of human “free will,” I have always seen Calvinists as the bad guys, which became even the case when I became a Wesleyan Arminian (United Methodist). But lately I’ve been reading books by Calvinists and having respectful and edifying conversations with them, and they’re teaching me a lot. I don’t think I’ll ever be a double-predestinarian, but I understand better where they’re coming from in their zeal for respecting God’s sovereignty and freedom. So I think I could say with sincerity מאיבי תחכמני מצותך and not mean that I’m wiser than my enemies but that God is teaching me His precepts through people I had thought were my “enemies” but have learned more and more to embrace as brothers and sisters.